On June 10, 2014, the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court of Schuylkill County, Theresa Santai Gaffney, filed a motion to intervene in the Whitewood v. Wolf court case that declared unconstitutional the law defining marriage between one man and one woman. Gaffney is seeking intervention in the case and a stay so that the ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Governor Tom Corbett, who had been defending the law, declined to appeal the ruling.
The debate over redefining marriage is national news, what does a local county official have to do with it?
The Clerk of the Orphan’s Court is an elected official in most Pennsylvania counties who serves as a custodian of records for the Orphan’s Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas. The clerk’s responsibilities include maintaining dockets and files for petitions for incapacitated persons, appointment of guardians, adoptions, and any other matters which may come before the Orphan’s Court. The local court’s family law records are handled by this office.
As such, the clerks are also responsible for issuing marriage licenses to qualified couples and ensuring that the duly enacted laws of the Commonwealth pertaining to marriage are being followed.
When a couple decides to marry, they must first apply for a license in the county where the wedding will take place. As Gaffney explains, “The application process consists of myself or one of my staff members conducting an interview to ascertain whether the individuals are of the appropriate age, are not blood relatives, are not currently still legally married to another individual, are applying of their own free will, etc.” Once the office determines that the couples meet all of the requirements, there is a three day waiting period before the marriage license may be issued. Then the couple has sixty days to get married by an appropriate official. After the wedding, the relevant portion of the license must be signed and returned so the marriage can be properly recorded.
Marriage is a personal relationship, but it is not merely a private affair between two people. It is a relationship with great public significance and, since it is the foundation of the family, it affects the wider society. It is not coincidental that marriage licenses are issued by the local orphan’s court. Counties are responsible for ensuring the care of dependents and children. Marriage records are an important part of establishing custody and responsibility for children. The historic connection between marriage and children is reflected in this framework.
Sadly today many people miss this important connection because they have a different understanding about what marriage is. Some see marriage as merely the public recognition of committed relationships for the benefit of adults.
The federal judge’s decision in the Whitewood case overturned a law that codified the value of marriage in our society. Gaffney believes, “It is not right for a single, unelected judge to reverse the will of the people’s representatives in the legislature without an appeals court reviewing the decision.” She feels that as a public official charged with enforcing Pennsylvania’s marriage laws in her county that it falls to her “to ensure that the (marriage) law, the legislators who passed it, and the majority of Pennsylvanians who still support it, enjoy full and complete judicial process.”
The judge in the Whitewood case will decide soon if Gaffney’s appeal is allowed to go forward.
(Editor’s Note – On June 18 this motion to intervene was denied. An appeal will now be made to the Third Circuit.)
Concerned about marriage? Theresa Santai Gaffney, a fellow Catholic, could use your words of support. Learn more at pacatholic.org and pray for her as she works to uphold marriage between one man and one woman.